Start talking plain English

This may sound over simplistic, but one of the reasons teams find it so hard to get everyone on the same page when it comes to important strategies and plans is because people simply don’t talk in plain English.

I don’t mean that people don’t speak the English language. I mean that people in corporations tend to talk in a conceptual, vague, unclear and convoluted corporate language, which is predicated on professional slogans, jargon, acronyms and other shortcut phrases and noun-type words.

For example, people say things like: We want to be Best in Class‘, but it is hard to tell if that means ‘Best among their peers in the industry’, ‘Best among other teams in their company’ or ‘Much better than they are today’?

Or, people say: “We need to enable our teams”, but do they mean train everyone, improve specific systems and/or tools, create new systems and/or tools or all of the above?

While everyone assumes that everyone else understands what is said and meant – more often than not that is completely not the case. Then people wonder why not everyone is owning the strategy and rowing in the same direction.

You wouldn’t fly with a pilot that commanded his flight with the low-level clarity and rigor that most corporate teams manage their business with. Nor would you put your body under the knife of a surgeon if you believed that he or she wasn’t 100% accurate and precise about their strategy and proposed execution of the operation. We don’t tolerate approximate measures when life is at stake. But for some reason, we do tolerate vagueness and lack of clear and rigorous conversations in business.

Corporate language is a language of implicit, not explicit clarity. You would think that with so much at stake within the business world people would want to leave nothing to chance. However, experience shows that leaders are content with leaving declarations, commitments, promises and expectations at a general and vague level.

So often when supporting teams in creating their strategic plan I listen to the dialogue and even though I am not an expert in their field I can immediately tell that their inability to converse in plain language is hindering their ability to think, create and articulate thoughts and ideas effectively.

Simply by asking: “So, what do you mean by that?” everyone quickly realizes that different people have different assumptions and interpretations about what is being said and meant.

My questions are often met with a blank stare or a long-winded response that only further illuminates the lack of clarity or I get a barrage of different, sometimes even opposing responses from different team members.

People seem to be so entrenched in the language-style used in PowerPoint presentations that they seem unable to move away from that style and converse in the same manner when interacting face-to-face.

This behavior is ingrained in corporate culture. However, it stems from our basic survival and comfort level instincts. We like to leave things high level and vague in order to ease the pressure of total commitment. After all, if you define things too clearly it becomes crystal clear what you’re saying, what you stand for, what you are committing to, and what you are accountable for. But, if you leave things more general it gives you wiggle room, especially when facing adversity. At the core, it’s not a language issue. It is a commitment issue.

The typical corporate language is sufficient for perpetuating the ordinary and status quo. However, if you have bolder ambitions in mind of being extraordinary and the ‘best of the best’, you better challenge the norm and start promoting and demanding a new level of simple, straightforward and rigorous exchange.

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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